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Be on Guard!

January 10, 2011, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Pastor Daniel Tan (Matthew 7:15-23) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Matthew
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Matthew, 马太福音

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Sermon on Matthew 7:15-23

Every now and then we read from the newspapers about some outrageous cults associated with mass death, either through murders, suicides, or standoffs with the government that ended tragically. For example, David Koresh, a high school dropout, rock musician, polygamist preacher, had built his church on a simple message: “If the Bible is true, then I am Christ.” It was enough to draw more than a hundred people to join him at an armed fortress near Waco, Texas, to await the end of the world. He would rather die in a battle against unbelievers, then be joined in heaven by the followers who chose to lay down their lives for him. On April 19, 1993, not only he himself was killed, he also claimed the lives of 80 of his followers, including 25 children, ending a 51-day-standoff with the US federal law enforcement. This highly publicized case has convinced the public that cults could turn to be extremist groups that are highly dangerous. It is reported that there are about 2,500 cults in the United States today, with estimated numbers of members exceeding over 10 million. It seems that there are more cults in America than there are churches preaching the truth.

It is also noted that many of those who successfully leave their cult groups would sustain lasting psychological problems. On average it takes two to five years to recover from cult involvement, with some people never recovering. (John Edmiston)

Indeed the cults’ activities and their teachings would mess people up deeply, even to the extent of destroying lives. That is why Jesus tells us in today passage to be very careful about the false prophets and their teachings. He wants His followers to be on guard at all times against anyone who makes religious claims that are contradicting to His teaching. Not only must we be on guard against those who would lead us into deception, Jesus is also telling us that we must take care that we do not deceive ourselves as He makes clear that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Thus, the appropriate title of today’s sermon is for Christians to be on guard!

(1) Christians must exercise discernment between the true and the false teachers/teachings.

The core teaching of Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount begins from chapter 5 and ends at 7:12. This ending verse is also known as the Golden Rule where Jesus concludes His main body of Sermon and says: “So, in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” With all the teachings on kingdom ethics fully spelt out, Jesus then invites His disciples and the crowds who wish to follow Him to embark on a life journey through the narrow gate and travel upon the narrow road. The image of two paths in life, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, was common in Judaism. So, Jesus’ use of this two paths’ imagery is specific and straightforward. Those who enter the wide gate will find themselves on a broad road that leads to destruction, but those who enter the narrow gate will find themselves on a narrow road that leads to life. The narrow gate and the narrow road is indeed the challenge that Jesus posed to His disciples or anyone who wishes to follow Him. The disciples’ journey on the narrow road is by no mean an easy one, for it might lead to suffering and self-sacrifice. Furthermore, there will always be false prophets or teachers who would endanger the journey of the disciples. Thus, Jesus’ invitation to travel on the narrow road is immediately followed by his warning to His disciples against false prophets: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” In other words, for the disciples to stay on the narrow road and not to go on the wrong track, they must exercise discernment between the true and the false prophets or teachers who come to them. And this is thus the first point of today’s sermon.

Who are these false prophets? In fact, one of the most disputed problems in Matthew is the identity of the false prophets mentioned here. Furthermore, Matthew makes no reference to their heretical teaching but only to their behavior and their influences. Scholars have identified these false prophets as the Pharisees, the Essenes or the Zealots. But the majority opinion is that these false prophets are Hellenistic antinomians within the Christian community. They advocate total freedom for Christians and thus reject moral laws as not binding upon them. This view also assumes that the false prophets are those referred to in verse 23 as evildoers, who practice lawlessness. Furthermore, Jesus in 24:11-12 predicts that in the end time, many false prophets will appear to deceive and mislead many to lawlessness and make the love of many to grow cold. So, we see these false prophets are clearly involved in the Christian community. They seem like authentic members of Christ’s flock ‘in sheep’s clothing’, but their failure to take Jesus’ moral teaching seriously can have grave consequences for those who look up to them as Christian leaders. Jesus describes them as ‘ferocious wolves’ because their practices threaten to destroy the flock by seducing its members from the narrow way to the broad way leading to destruction. Thus, they are indeed the mortal enemies of those who belong to Jesus’ flock. As we know, the wolf, known for its ferocity, is the natural enemy of the sheep, so these false prophets are natural enemies of the truth and the true people of God. Therefore, Jesus warns His followers to be wary of them. Following their way will lead only to the destruction of the flock.

But isn’t in the beginning of Chapter 7 we are told by Jesus not to judge others, or else we too will be judged? Why then in today’s passage various judgments seem to be drawn on these false prophets? Jesus is not contradicting His own teaching. When He commands us not to judge, it means that it is not our place as judge to judge anyone. The judging remains the prerogative of God or His Son who is the sole Judge. Thus, we see at the end of today’s passage, it is Jesus, not us, who will do the rejecting: “Away from me, you evildoers!” Nevertheless, Jesus is calling His followers to be wary, to be wisely discerning when prophets come into their mist, to find out as to who is who. Jesus thus gives His people a rule according to which they can recognize these apparently harmless prophets but actually are not. This rule is: By their fruit you will recognize them!

‘Fruit’ is a metaphor which is commonly used everywhere, especially in the Old Testament. Fruit is the product of a person’s essential life. The fruit that the person produces in life says and reveals who he or she is. The interesting thing about fruit is that it tells you about its source, the type of tree it is. If you have an apple, you know it came from an apple tree. If you have an orange, you know it came from an orange tree. No matter how advance is one’s genetic engineering, it is just impossible to make an apple tree to produce oranges. This is exactly what Jesus means when He asks: “Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” Thus, one cannot pretend oneself to be an apple, but in actual fact he is an orange. In other words, his true identity as a false teacher cannot be hidden for long, because he will never be able to produce the right teaching but only the false one.

Jesus then goes a step further when He says: “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” In other words, Jesus is saying that from the condition of a fruit whether it is good or bad, you should be able tell the state of health of that tree. Jesus is now implying that through the conduct or practice of that person, the disciples should be able to discern between the true and the false prophet. In other words, his character, his conduct and his way of living will certainly determine the condition of fruit he bears, whether it is good or bad. Good fruit comes only from good trees. So, righteous deeds come only from those who follow the teaching of Jesus, they are the good trees. In contrast, the bad trees are those who give the appearance of belonging to Jesus’ flock, but their true character is revealed in their unrighteous or lawless deeds, the bad fruit they produce. Thus, Jesus is telling His disciples to examine a person’s character and conduct to determine whether he is a true prophet or not. Looking at his life and his work, you will be able to know the condition of his fruit, the kind of teaching he produces.

Yes, brothers and sisters, Jesus calls His people to be discerning by using the criterion of assessing the nature and condition of fruit. On the surface, it would appear this is an easy criterion for deciding, which could be used by any one. But this simple criterion “You will know them by their fruit” could be opened for misuse because it could be applied by everyone and against everyone. We may be quick to become judgmental. We might say: Oh! This person acts like a Christian, so he must be a Christian. That person acts in some sinful ways to me, so he cannot be a Christian. I don’t think this is what Jesus meant. Bad people can do nice things. Good people can do evil things, at times. We are, after all, all are sinners. And that is why Jesus commands us not to judge others. I think the main emphasis of Jesus using the fruit criterion is to call us to be zealous for the truth, and at the same time be always on guard against false teachers who would lead us to the wrong track in our life journey. Thus, every one of us needs to care about sound teaching, the preaching of the word of God. So, do you make it your business to study the word of God? Do you long to become better equipped, better grounded in the teaching of the Scriptures so that you are able to discern the true teaching from the false? If you do not know the right teaching of the Bible, you will certainly not know the falsehood when you encounter it. In our society unlike other countries, we are fortunate not to have exposed to too many different kinds of cults. But quite often, you still get someone knocking at your door, telling you some strange teachings that might fascinate you or confuse you. So, as people of God, can you tell the difference between the right and the wrong teaching?
In ancient China, gem merchants often took on apprentices to study the craft of selecting, cutting and selling rare stones. One young man came to a master craftsman requesting to become an apprentice. The craftsman agreed and asked him to come back the next day. The following day, the apprentice arrived and was given a ruby and told to sit in the corner and hold it. Throughout the day that was what he did. He did the same thing the next day…and the next…and the next. After a couple of weeks, the apprentice complained and asked why he was being treated this way. The craftsman without saying a word placed a stone in the young man’s hand at which the apprentice immediately commented, “That is not a ruby.” He had learned to know the authentic from the fake by constant exposure to the real thing. So should be our Christian training. We must constantly be taught on and exposed to the right teaching of the Bible, and the correct doctrines of our Christian faith. Only then can we know the authentic from the fake one!

(2) Christians must take seriously their lives to bear the fruit of righteousness.

Yes, Jesus warns His followers that they must be on guard against those who would lead them into deception, for there will always be false prophets entering their community in sheep’s clothing. But within the community itself, there will always be false disciples as well: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Thus, we come to the second warning of Jesus to anyone who wishes to follow Him. In other words, Jesus wants His followers to take seriously their lives to do the will of the Heavenly Father, which is to bear the fruit of righteousness as taught by Him in the Sermon on the Mount.

Of course Jesus has the group of false prophets in mind when He issues the warning. But by stating that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord!” will enter into the kingdom of heaven, Jesus’ warning has now broadened to anyone who wishes to be His disciples. The double use of addressing ‘Lord, Lord’ is especially expressive and imploring. In the Gospel of Matthew, the use of ‘Lord’ to address Jesus has much more significance. ‘Lord’ is the title that is regularly used by people who approach Jesus in search of divine help (e.g. 8:2,5; 9:28; 17:15; 20:30,31,33).But more importantly, addressing Jesus as Lord are Jesus’ own disciples when they need His divine assistance (8:25; 14:30). Thus, by addressing Jesus as Lord, they are in fact recognizing the authority and power of Jesus and His status as the Son of God. So, for Matthew, ‘Lord’ is the address of Jesus’ followers to their Master. In fact, Jesus as Lord is not meant to be addressed by outsiders, but for disciples only. In other words, Matthew is thinking of the Christian community that not all its members are true disciples of Jesus even though they address Him as Lord.

So, an oral confession of Jesus as Lord does not automatically qualify one to be the true disciple of Jesus. Not only that, many who claim that they have prophesied, cast out demons and done many miracles in Jesus’ name are not considered by Jesus in His final judgment to be His true disciples. So, we see mighty deeds are not a final indication of whether someone really belongs to Jesus or not. And the problem is not their inactivity, of doing nothing. In fact, they seem to have done a lot of mighty works in Jesus’ name. But the ultimate test is that the fruit they bear is not good or genuine, because they take a lax view of the law and the need for obedience to it. Thus, their lawless behavior and their evil doing, even when it is accompanied by the so called charismatic gifts will not qualify them to enter the kingdom of heaven. They will still be rejected by Jesus in His final judgment.

So, who are the true disciples of Jesus? The true disciples according to Jesus are His followers who do the will of the Heavenly Father. But what does Jesus mean by doing the will of the Heavenly Father? Jesus does not mean that to do God’s will we simply have to obey the Old Testament law as laid down by God Himself. With His coming into the world, the doing of the will of the Heavenly Father is now reinterpreted through His own teaching. Now all through the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5, 6 and 7, Jesus has been setting forth the divine standards of God’s kingdom. In other words, Jesus has spelt out clearly certain principles or kingdom ethics as a demand for those who desire to enter the kingdom. To sum them up, the requirement for entering the kingdom is that you be righteous, as Jesus states clearly that, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”(5:20) So, for Jesus, being righteous is doing the will of the Heavenly Father. Using the metaphor of fruit again, it means one needs to bear the fruit of righteousness in life for him or her to enter the kingdom of heaven. But what is this call to righteousness made by Jesus? Again, we have to go back to the various teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In short, Jesus’ call to righteousness encompasses kingdom virtues (the Beatitudes: e.g. poor in spirit, to be meek, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be peacemaker.). It also includes personal devotion to God, and unselfish social behavior.

Yes, brothers and sister, Jesus warns us not to deceive ourselves as if professing Jesus as Lord would make us His true disciples. Even our charismatic works in Jesus’ name will not be acceptable by Him if we do not live out the life of righteousness. But how righteous are we supposed to be? If we study carefully the Sermon on the Mount as preached by Jesus from chapters 5 to 7, isn’t Jesus setting a too high standard that is beyond human’s capacity to reach? Furthermore, we are told to be more righteous than the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. As far as the people around them were concerned, they knew they were exceedingly righteous. They seemed to have all the right things like praying, giving alms and fasting. They seemed to have maintained every minute element of the Old Testament law. Yet, Jesus wants us to be more righteous than these religious people. So, will we be able to reach the standard of Jesus? Can we really live out the kingdom virtues: be totally devoted and faithful to God, and be kind and helpful to our fellow human beings? By ourselves, we can’t! And Jesus knows it! The reason why Jesus rejects the religious lives of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law is precisely that they think they are good enough and capable to do God’s will on their own. Thus we see at the end of His warning, Jesus concludes His final teaching of the Sermon on the Mount with the parable of the two builders, the wise one and the foolish one. This passage of Jesus’ parable will be preached in next Sunday’s sermon. But I just need to point out today one key saying of Jesus that ignites hope for us to be able to live out the fruit of righteousness. Surprisingly, this key saying of Jesus is not found in the Matthew’s text, but in the parallel text written by Luke. Luke like Matthew, records the same parable that Jesus gives concerning the wise and foolish builders. In his text, referring to the wise builder, we read Jesus’ saying: “I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and put them into practice.”(LK 6:47) Yes, the key phrase is ‘who comes to me’. Jesus is calling us to ‘come to him’ first, only then will we be able to hear His words and put them into practice. So, the right sequence of approaching Jesus is important and crucial for us to be able to live out the fruit of righteousness: To Come—To Hear—To Practice. Not everyone who professes Jesus as Lord does have a relationship with Him. In other words, we may claim to believe in Jesus and even to serve Him, but if we do not actually go to Him to build a close relationship with Jesus, we are at the risk of not being part of God’s kingdom. We will also not be able to draw strength and guidance from Jesus to bear the fruit of righteousness in life. Jesus is the ultimate example who truly obeys the Father’s will (26:42). To follow His example in discipleship and become like Him will enable us to do God’s will on a daily basis. And this requires us to consciously come to Jesus and to maintain a close relationship with Him. So, we see it is impossible to do the will of God without building a relationship with Jesus. How comforting it is for us to know that Jesus indeed welcomes us to come to Him! He wants to be our source of strength and the light of our narrow path, in order to help us to do God’s will, to live out the fruit of righteousness.

The ethical demand of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to live a righteous life often gives us the impression that it takes priority and significance over the grace of the Gospel. Jesus is not saying that the ethical demand in His Sermon on the Mount is for us the promise of or a condition for our salvation. This ethical demand is in fact helping us to do the will of the heavenly Father as we step out in our faith journey on the narrow road. Our failure to follow His ethical demand to do the will of the Father only shows that we have never wished or in fact participated in the kingdom of God. As a matter of fact, there is a larger framework of God’s grace embracing the ethical demand of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. God’s grace enables us to know His will and to act accordingly through His Son. God’s grace also makes available His forgiveness to us through His Son. One should not overlook the importance of the Lord’s Prayer in chapter 6 where Jesus teaches His disciples how to pray. Have you ever wondered why the Lord’s Prayer is included in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? Jesus wants to make clear to us that God is the merciful Father we are addressing and we may thus pray to Him for the forgiveness of our wrong doings. At the same time we pray for His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Finally, let me end with this illustration: Two boats powered by coal, travelling down the river together to a common destination. As they traveled side-by-side, sailors from one vessel made some critical remarks and jokes about the snail’s pace of the other boat. Heated words were exchanged between the sailors of the two boats. Challenges were made. So the race began. The competition was hot and fierce. Eventually, one boat began falling behind. The problem: it did not have enough fuel. There had been plenty of coal for the trip, but not enough for a race. As the boat dropped back, an enterprising young sailor took some of the ship’s cargo and tossed it into the boat’s ovens. When his fellow sailors saw that the supplies burned as well as coal, they likewise fueled their boat with the cargo they had been assigned to transport. Guess what? They ended up winning the race. But they burned their cargo. The men on the winning boat did what they liked, which was winning the race. But the price for that victory was expansive. The boat’s cargo, the very reason they were traveling down the river was sacrificed. So, they failed to do what they ought to have done, which was to safely transport their cargo. (Clovis Chappell)

Yes, brothers and sisters, similarly, God has entrusted each of us with cargo. Our cargo is other people, such as friends and family. Our cargo is also the ability God has given us to help someone else, and to share the Gospel of Jesus with others. We are responsible for this cargo, and ought to cherish it in our journey through life. However like the men on the winning boat, often we fail in that responsibility. We fail because as what Billy Graham says, “We hurt people by being too busy. Too busy to notice their needs. Too busy to listen when someone needs to talk. Too busy to care.” And of course, we are too busy also to share the Gospel with others. So, do we just care about winning the race for self-glory, and burn our cargo God has entrusted us as we busily do what we like? Do we go full steam in our self-seeking race, or do we slow down ourselves for the needs of others, and for the kingdom of God? Can we be diligent with the cargo God has entrusted us, and not to sacrifice them as we selfishly do what we like running the race for our own glory? Remember as Jesus’ followers, we should not deceive ourselves to engage in the race of the world as others do. It is the fruit of righteousness that Jesus wants us to bear in our life journey on the narrow road. It is not about winning the race for other people to admire us, but doing the will of God whom we call our Father in Heaven. Jesus indeed welcomes us to come to Him so that we may find strength and confidence in Him to live out the fruitful lives. May God bless you all!

Matthew 7:15–23 (Listen)

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

(ESV)